Illustration of inflatable buildings

Blowing up buildings

She was invited to an artists’ retreat, so Whitney Moon packed up the building.

The Warming Hive – a beehive-shaped, inflatable structure – stands 16 feet tall when filled with air and fits into her car when empty. It’s made from white nylon tubes that are fire-retardant, setting it apart from most pneumatic structures. At the retreat, it served as a kitchen that partially enclosed a wood-burning oven.

Moon is an architectural historian and assistant professor at UWM’s School of Architecture & Urban Planning. She researches how pneumatic structures can be flexible, functional alternatives to brick-and-mortar buildings. This one was designed and built by her students.

“The Warming Hive is a form of architecture that’s available to anyone at any time for any use,” Moon says.

Moon traces the history of such buildings to the 1960s, when artists and architects began experimenting with new materials, such as plastics. One of the largest early projects was the “Atoms for Peace” pavilion, which the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission used to promote nuclear power in South America and Europe. The 22,000-square-foot building could be constructed over the course of two days by an unskilled work crew of 12.

But the pneumatic bubble burst. “It was tied to the 1973 energy crisis and the oil embargo,” Moon says. “In many ways, pneumatics were doomed to fail because they were created with petroleum-based materials and needed a power source.”

Far removed from that era, the Hive cost $5,000 to create. Moon wants inflatables like it to be less wasteful than alternative temporary structures while promoting what she calls social resiliency.

“The Warming Hive can be used as a shelter, a performance space or a kitchen,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about how someone decides to appropriate the space.”